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Sabermetrics Case Study: Zack Greinke

   by Hollywood Sports - 07/14/2011

It has been a disappointing first half of the baseball season for Zack Greinke. The 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner owns a 7-3 record for the Brewers but his 5.45 ERA is a definite cause for concern. There seems to be an emerging consensus that Greinke is still pitching very well but that he has just been a victim of circumstance. For example, the fantasy baseball page at ESPN projects Greinke as the #13th best (fantasy) pitcher moving forward -- just behind Jon Lester at #11 and immediately ahead of Tommy Hanson, Matt Cain, Josh Beckett and Dan Haren. Those analysts who are particularly enamored by strikeouts (and are apparently not sold on the Cardinals' pitching coach, Dave Duncan, and his continued success in overseeing reclamation projects that get it done by inducing ground balls) point to Greinke's impressive 99:16 K-to-BB ratio. I have also seen arguments that the right-hander has suffered from a weak defensive infield of this Milwaukee team. But the evidence does not seem to bare that out. The MLB batting average for ground balls that are put into play for base hits (GB BABIP) is .231 this season. The Brewers' defensive GB BABIP is .232 which indicates that Milwaukee is in fact not allowing a disproportionate number of balls to get through the infield.

It has also been suggested that Greinke has been a victim of some bad luck -- and there is evidence to support this notion. As compared to that Milwaukee defensive GB BABIP of .232, Greinke is seeing the ground balls he is allowing into play become base hits at a .267 rate. That is rather high and suggests that Greinke has been a victim of more than his fair share of seeing-eye ground balls that are getting through the infield. Hitters are likely not trying to produce ground balls since they generally swing for line drive contact. The ground balls a pitcher allows are probably not the result of a batter winning the battle between pitcher and hitter. There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why Greinke has been more unfortunate when it comes to these ground balls escaping for base hits. So, it is fair to say that he should see this number regress back to the Brewers mean over time.

One of the reasons a pitching guru like Duncan love ground ball pitchers (and why these pitchers remain underrated without very sexy strikeout numbers) is that while ground ball pitchers may allow more base hits, these hits do not tend to go for extra-bases. Yet Greinke is getting torched for extra-base hits. Greinke owns an Isolated Power (ISO: slugging percentage minus batting average) of .214 which is dramatically higher than the MLB average that is in the .135-.145 range. This is a significant problem. Not surprisingly then, hitters are finding that 23.7% of the balls they are hitting off Greinke are line drives. The MLB average for line drive rate is only 17.5-18.5%. Something is wrong with the former Cy Young Award winner if so many hitters are teeing-off on him by generating line drives and extra-base hits.

This helps explains that rough 5.45 ERA. While Greinke's mere 16 walks this season is an outstanding number, maybe the right-hander is substituting pitching to the corners of the strike zone with too many safer pitches that are finding the opposing hitter's wheelhouse. Consider the fact that Greinke sports a 7.42 ERA with a rough 1.52 WHIP when on the road this season. Perhaps pitching in hostile environments is contributing to him losing more of these pitcher-battles duels. Certainly giving up all these well-hit balls is a tough combination when also getting unlucky with ground balls. So, things should not get worse for Greinke in the second half. On the other hand, until Greinke shows evidence that he is still not grooving it in their to opposing hitters, there is little reason to think he will get out of this funk. In his last three starts before the All-Star break, Greinke has an 8.36 ERA with a 1.64 WHIP. Maybe some good investment opportunities will appear later in the season for the former Cy Young Award winner. But as long as he is being respected by the money line anywhere close to that ESPN projection of him being the #13th best starting pitcher in baseball, there will continue to be some outstanding betting opportunities against him. Best of luck -- Frank.

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